before and after basics: sanding 101


The first step to finishing any furniture project is sanding. Whether you choose to use a power sander or sand everything by hand, selecting the right type of sand paper is crucial to the outcome. Sanding with the wrong paper can damage your piece of furniture and cause lots of extra work for you. And we would like to avoid creating extra work for ourselves at all costs, right?

I have heard your cries about sanding woes of projects past, so today on Before and After Basics I will try to take some of the abrasiveness (pun completely intended!) out of sanding. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty (said in my best Nacho Libre voice!) — Barb

CLICK HERE for the full how-to after the jump!

Choosing the Right Grit

  • Sandpaper is graded based on the number of abrasive material per square inch, so higher numbers reflect a finer grit and lower numbers indicate a coarser grit. It usually goes something like this: medium, 80–120; fine, 150–180; very fine, 220–240; extra fine, 280–320.
  • Sanding with progressively finer grits removes the scratches left by the previous grit and eventually leaves a smooth finish. So start with a coarser grit and move on to a finer grit for your polishing step.
  • Coarse-grit papers will remove material fast and when followed by finer grit papers, make for much easier and quicker sanding. This is opposed to using a finer grit to sand the entire piece. You can do that, but it will take much more time and energy!

Sanding Tips

  • The number one rule is to ALWAYS sand with the grain of the wood, never across or against it. It totally stinks when you get this great, painted finish on a piece and you see sanding spirals staring back at you. Not good at all!
  • When I am hand sanding, I prefer a sanding sponge for a couple reasons. One, a sanding sponge contours to the piece that I am sanding especially if there is detail work and a lot of curves. Two, when you use a plain piece of sandpaper and your hand, the paper contours to your hand and not the piece, leaving an uneven sanding job. Third, a sanding sponge has sanding surfaces on all sides making it easy to get in small nooks and crannies.
  • If you decide that the job requires a belt sander, just know that you are using a powerful tool and it will eat the piece for lunch if you are not careful! Also know that the power sander cannot get into the small corners, so you will have to use a smaller detail tool for that. Belt sanders are perfect for removing lots of surface material, but use caution. In my line of furniture work I rarely find a need for a belt sander, but every now and again I do pull out the big gun!

  • I do, however, use an orbital sander on a daily basis, and it is one of my most valuable tools besides the paint brush. I love me some orbital goodness! While an orbital sander can still do some damage if not kept moving, it is much more manageable than a belt sander. One word of caution here: do not push down on the sander while in use, but rather let the sander do the work for you and keep it moving. If you leave it in one place for too long, you will have a sanding circle that looks like a little alien space ship landed on your piece!

A quick note about distressing your painted pieces: I personally use an orbital sander for all flat surfaces, such as dresser tops and drawer fronts, but prefer to use sanding sponges for any of the detail sanding. When using an orbital sander for distressing, it is crucial to keep the sander moving and on the surface of the piece. Removing the sander from the piece and then placing it back on the surface causes what I call “exit and entry wounds” that leave unnatural markings on your surface. Remember to sand areas where you feel the piece would naturally show wear and tear over time for the most authentic finish.

I hope that helps with your sanding issues! See you next week!

  1. Molly says:

    Barb, have you ever used one of those “mouse” sanders? I have one and am debating whether or not I need an orbital sander for my furniture refinishing projects. Any thoughts?

  2. Josie says:

    Just to add – be careful sanding veneered pieces – it’s easy to sand right through that veneer

  3. Paulina J! says:

    This article is so timely since I will be refinishing a little rocking chair to gift to a friend that is expecting a little girl. This article along with the staining and poly articles are a life saver. Maybe I’ll share a before and after if it looks good!

  4. I refinished a set of chairs a while back and decided to strip & stain them; looking back I wish I had spent more time taking note of helpful tips like these!! The chairs turned out really cute when I finished, but the experience was anything but smooth {haha, get it – smooth – sanding?!}. I actually just posted some tips on my blog from the experience, check it out if you have a chance. :)

  5. summerland says:

    This article is uncannily timed for me. Last night my husband and I resolved a 3-day fight over sanding this HUGE 4X8 ft. table for a client of mine. This fight was second to the worst fight we ever had over sanding the cupboards in our first kitchen! I think I’ll leave sanding to the experts from here on out. Give me a good old fashioned upholstered piece to work some magic on! I’ll tackle that over serious sanding any day!! Makes me appreciate what you do even more!

  6. Kira says:

    thanks so much for the tips! HUGE multi-piece sanding project this weekend and I was terrified to pull out the sand paper, but now I feel confident that my projects will turn out swimingly! Thanks!

  7. Stephanie says:

    Great tips. I heart my random orbit sander! It’s my very first power tool and it worked great for refinishing my cabinets.

  8. Michelle Berman says:


    Any suggestions on a brand for the sander? I had a Ryobi that was not very good for me and I had to return it. It had the clips on each end to hold the paper on it.



  9. Sweet T says:

    Hate to be a buzzkill, but if you’re sanding something old – you’ve got to watch out for lead paint – always wear a respirator just to be safe – & gloves too! Great tips – thanks!

  10. Cassie says:

    Thanks so much. I’m about to rescue a sweet chair and was unsure how to start! I check Design Sponge everyday to see what new ideas I can use!

  11. Kev says:

    Most of the time I just need to key a surface for paint, Prefer to use sanding sponges. If paint or varnish is flaky then I may get the power sander out.

  12. Matt S says:

    A very nice article. Straight, to the point, and a great reminder even for the everyday sandman.

  13. Eva says:

    i found faces in your sander :) which is cute. also, very helpful article once again!

  14. Blake Eames says:

    Michelle~ I love my Porter Cable orbital sander…has velcro on sanding sheets instead of the clips (which I hate!) This sander is the bomb! The sheets come in asst grit packages and are not that pricey!
    Us ladies have smaller hands and this sander fits beautifully in my palm! Also has a dust catcher receptacle…:)
    Happy sanding ya’ll!

  15. Jesse says:

    great tips! I know what you mean about those nasty little spirals, so when using the orbital on wood, how do you avoid those spirals? I can’t seem to get rid of them even though i’m not pushing hard! Thanks for this great advice, as usual!

    1. Barb says:

      molly, I had a mouse sander at one time, and use it very rarely for getting in difficult nooks and crannies, but find that the orbital sander is much more powerful and does what I need it to do better than the mouse sander.

      michelle, blake recommended a brand that I love as well, but my current orbital sander is a black and decker and it has been good to me. I do love some porter cable tools though and have nail guns, compressors and that sort of thing from them:) The velcro sanding pads are wonderful and will not frustrate you like the clip on ones have. you will feel like a new woman! :)

      jesse, the way to avoid the spirals is to work in a back and forth motion. there is a tendency to want to sand in round circles but avoid that, and work back and forth with the grain of the wood to eliminate the circles.

      **so sorry that it took me a few days to get back to you all on this one. I am out of town and have limited internet…..thanks for your patience!

  16. Michelle Berman says:

    Thanks, Blake! Velcro is SO much better… I am going to check it out :)

  17. karen berg says:

    Barb, perfect advice! I often push down hard on my orbital sander, but then get those lovely circles staring back at me after the piece is completed. Duh. Thank you, no more sanding mistakes for moi. Great article!

  18. Elizabeth Pearson says:

    Barb, I’m in the process of sanding down an old lacquered chest of drawers. The poor thing has lots of gashes/scrapes, although they’re not super duper deep. I’m afraid I’ll totally destroy the piece with an orbital sander, so I’ve been using an 80 grit sanding sponge. After spending 2 hours or more on the top, then 2 hours on each side, I am wondering if I should just go forward with wood filler then sand with 220 grit.

    Also, I saw that glidden now makes a door and trim paint that doesn’t sag or show brush strokes—is that ok for an indoor piece?

  19. Hugh Sweeney says:

    Great articles


  20. Hugh Sweeney says:

    Great articles I just bought a SKILL orbital sander and it works fine. I am new to sanding. I’ve had no problems with spirals so far. For me the tips are timely

  21. Cherrie Hub says:

    yes, i love working with the natural wood and getting the ‘rustic’ look out of the furniture, instead of painting it. I often have got problems with the ‘rings’ left on the wood after the sander, now I know why :) I’d love to try the sanding sponge for once, as my most reliable tool is the black and Decker belt Sander. It’s seen better days (and a lot of them), but still it outlived two different mouse sanders. Thanks for a lovely post, by the way, I’m glad i found someone else loving the rustic beauty of natural wood :)

  22. Sophia Liam says:

    This is an awesome article! Does a sponge sander still allow you to put as much pressure as you need to on the object? It sounds like a great idea, but I’ve never used one. Thanks!

  23. Amanda in Sydney says:

    Thanks for your article. After a long break from any projects (2years) I was about to start some furniture projects where I needed to sand back the old varnish. I already have an orbital sander (think it is random) and a great Bosch detail sander but was told I should get a belt sander for the desk I was going to refinish. Now reading your article I think I might hold off on buying an expensive belt sander and try with my orbital sander first.

    Just an aside…how do you stop and start so you don’t get those circular marks?


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